BASS 2013: Michael Byers: “Malaria” from Bellevue Literary Review, Fall 2012

Art by Simon Brushfield: "Tennis in the Skyline", 2012

Art by Simon Brushfield: “Tennis in the Skyline”, 2012

Sometimes when I’m late in a story that’s dead-ended like this, I’ll poke around in the story’s bag of emotions to see what I’ve got along with me – joy, envy, sorrow? Sometimes I can actually burrow under to the originating impulse of the material – the Platonic thing the story was before it got linted-up with particulars of character, setting, and so on – and tug something useful out into the light. In this case, I finally flashed that the story wasn’t about Orlando and Nora as a couple but about Orlando himself. Once I got him alone, then put him on the tennis court with a bunch of strangers, I knew I had it right.

~~Michael Byers, Contributor Note

How do we – how can we possibly – tell our story? Maybe by telling someone else’s.

Bellevue Literary Review has made this story available online; it’s quite short – eight book pages – and very enjoyable. The real story lies beneath.

Orlando (if there’s a connection with the Virginia Woolf novel, I missed it, but I would; I’m just barely familiar with it) is a rather aimless college student. He meets his girlfriend by accident, and happily accommodates himself to her orbit. On a visit to her family, he plays tennis with her brother, who excuses his poor play with “I have malaria.” That revelation becomes a central point in Orlando’s growth; on returning to school, he discovers the ambition that’s been missing through tennis, but he’s always bothered by George’s comment: does the guy have malaria? It’s kind of an odd lie to use as an excuse. When George later experiences a break with reality, Orlando is concerned that he may have been privy to an early warning sign, but did nothing about it. That’s a ridiculous notion, I think; mental illness isn’t like cancer, where early detection greatly increases the odds of cure. But it eats at Orlando, who wrestles with ideas of responsibility and guilt even as he finds some of his latent ambition on another tennis court. “He was important to me in a way such people can be, surprisingly, really out of proportion to their actual size in your life,” says Orlando of George. I understand that.

Malaria, with its chills and fevers, also serves to underline the element of temperature into the story. Early on, Orlando’s girlfriend is described in glowing terms of the greenhouse in which she works: “The heat affected her well.” Later into his illness, George prefers his room cold. Through them, Orlando discovers his own lukewarmness.

What are we supposed to do with what we know? What is George Vardon to me?
And these days it strikes me that possibly these aren’t the questions. Maybe we’re not supposed to do anything. Maybe this is just a story of something that happened to me, and not even really to me at all. It’s really George’s story, that is, but naturally he can’t tell it, and neither can I.

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